Intriguing Facts about Democracy in Ancient Greece

HISTORY, 24 Sep 2018

Historyplex – TRANSCEND Media Service

Democracy is seemingly the result of the innovative thinking of the ancient Greeks. Principles of modern democracies rest on some of the basics of the ancient Athenian ‘demokratia’. But what was the ancient Greek democratic setup like, and how was it different from the other systems of governance which were followed in those days? Here are some intriguing facts on ancient Greek administration.

The world has experienced numerous kinds of governance systems over the ages, and there have been absolute extremes at that. At one extreme was a system called ‘monarchy’, wherein a state was ruled by a king/monarch, who had inherited the power from his ancestors.

Then there was ‘dictatorship’, in which a powerful person from the social order took over the control of the state by force, and proceeded with the governance in his own way. At the other extreme lied the system known as ‘oligarchy’, under which the power equation rested in the hands of a few prominent social members, who in turn framed the laws and governed the people.One single factor that was common to all these systems was that the common people were nowhere taken into consideration. They had no say whatsoever in the day-to-day functioning of their state, which at the end also impacted their daily lives.

Democracy formed a bridge between the ruler and the ruled; the government and the common man. Democratic principles attempted to bring the common man closer to the systems and procedures of the state, thus reducing the rift that was created in case of the other power structures.


Very much like the names of the other political systems, we have also got the name democracy from the ancient Greeks. In Greek language, the word democracy comes from two words, viz. demos meaning people, and kratos meaning power. So, in a nutshell, the term democracy stands literally for people-power.

This ideology is said to have been put forth by Cleisthenes, an Athenian statesman in 507 B.C. Cleisthenes’ demokratia was a system of political reforms that tried to abolish the monopolization of political power from the hands of a few aristocrats. The introduction of the concept of demokratia was a noble attempt, which facilitated direct involvement of the masses in the day-to-day working of the state, and bridged the social and economic gap between the Greek people belonging to different social strata. Demokratia was introduced and implemented, and eventually gained a lot of support from the masses. However, it could survive only for two centuries at that time. For people like us, who are living in the modern era, it is needless to say that democracy is one of the most valuable and enduring ideologies that have been bestowed upon us by the innovative thinkers of ancient Greece.

Conditions Leading to the Rise of Democracy in Ancient Greece

More than 2,000 years ago, Greece practiced a completely different social and political system from the rest of the world. Ancient Greece, which comprised numerous city-states, had implemented direct democracy as a system of governance. The Greek civilization was a first ever ancient civilization to have introduced democracy; the system that was unparalleled during that time.

The advent of democracy in the political scenario of ancient Greece did not happen all of a sudden. It was a collective consequence of a number of political, social and economic factors, which led to the upheaval of the existing political system and subsequent democratization. The presence of these factors paved the way for democracy to enter ancient Greek politics as well as society. Given below are some of these factors:

Hoplite Phalanx

By the mid 7th century B.C.E, a new type of warfare, the hoplite phalanx, a compact formation of soldiers armed with spears and shields gained importance. These soldiers consisted of the rising middle class of independent farmers, craftsmen, and merchants who had no social status or political power except to fight in formation, leading to growing resentment.

Rise of Tyranny

Some ambitious nobles used this resentment and frustration of the middle class to seize power and set up a type of government called a tyranny. The tyranny firstly protected people’s rights with a written law code. Secondly, confiscated the lands of the nobles and redistributed them among the poor. Most importantly they provided jobs through building projects, fortification and patronizing art.

Primitive Democracy

These rights and laws along with increased prosperity, brought on by the tyrants, only gave the people a taste for more of the same. Eventually, this increased demand for rights and power along with resentment and repression would lead to a revolution to replace the tyrants with a limited democracy, especially favoring the hoplite class of small landholding farmers.

The economic advancement of the city-states made the restructuring of social classes possible, thus resulting in the reduction in the rift between the aristocrats and the masses. In order to give way to a political system that would facilitate social inclusion, a complete disposal of the traditional ideologies was necessary. To bring about this change, people took aid of the tyrants, who ruled not as kings but as generals/governors. The idea was to usurp the monarchical rule with the help of a tyrant, and then to usurp the tyrant himself by democratic ideology. This was the phase of the actual transition. So, when the Greek cultural center shifted back to the Greek mainland, the city-states were enjoying the rule of direct democracy.

Structure of Ancient Greek Democracy

The structure of Greek democracy was very organized and up to the mark, owing to the fact that this institution was the first of its kind. It was divided into three political bodies where there would be hundreds or thousands of members. They were the Assembly or the Ekklesia, the Council or the Boule, and the popular courts or the Dikasteria.

The Ekklesia was the chief governing body of the democratic setup. Any male citizen was allowed to participate in the meetings of the assembly, which were held about 40 times per year. Their responsibilities included formulating and passing new laws, voting on various decrees and treaties, and electing magistrates who would be responsible for carrying out the legal procedures.

The Boule was a council of 500 male members, 50 each belonging to ten tribes, who served for the period of one year. They met everyday and dealt with the day-to-day functioning of the government. Their main function was to decide what matters would be taken before the Ekklesia. They were not democratically elected representatives, but were chosen by a lottery system, where chance played a major role.

The Dikasteria or the public courts, according to Aristotle, “contributed most to the strength of democracy”. This is due to the fact that the judges exercised almost unlimited power. Interestingly, there was no police force, and so the common people filed and argued their cases themselves, and the verdicts were given by majority rule. As many as 500 men above 30 years of age, were elected every day from amongst the public, who would serve as jurors for that particular day. A wage was paid to them for carrying out their assigned duty, so that the privilege of approaching a juror would not remain limited only to the upper classes. But as there were no lawyers and judges who presided over these courts of law, a kind of unprofessional atmosphere prevailed, as anybody and everybody could argue their own cases.

Around 355 BC, political trials were held in courts and not the assemblies. The court had the powers to validate or to rule out the decisions made by the assembly. There was lack of a neutral authority to intervene. One more important factor in Greek democracy was that the whole system revolved around the Ho boulomenos, meaning ‘he who wishes’ or the citizen initiator. He was the speaker in the assembly and proposer of the laws. He did not have any set tenure. So, the council, the assembly, the officials who did all the administrative work, and the citizen initiator, were the cornerstones of the democracy in ancient Greece.

Salient Features of Ancient Greek Democracy

Democracy was the one governing system which stood out during the 5th century B.C. and a couple of centuries that followed. It was still in its rudimentary form, considering the fact that it was still being instilled in the social structure. But even then the very idea that it was the rule of the people was what was more thrilling in that age of the monarchies and oligarchies. This system really made ancient Greece stand out and develop at a faster pace than the rest of the world. Following are some of the salient features of the democracy that was prevalent in ancient Greece:

The whole system of democracy rested on the ideal of equality. Every citizen, irrespective of his class and creed, was given equal social status.

It was an ‘all men’s club’. Only male members of the society were bestowed with the honor of being Greek citizens. Male adults, who had completed their military training as an Ephebes, could qualify to vote. This omitted the rest that included slaves, women, children, foreigners, and also tax defaulters. Despite this exclusion, a majority of the population took active part in the process of government formation.

There was no ascribed property limit that was required to be a part of the government system, but certain norms like ancestral conception of the citizenship, were stated. This meant that in order to be accepted as an Athenian/Greek citizen, one’s parents had to be Athenian/Greek. Owing to this, the children of Greek men and women of foreign origin and vice versa were excluded from the social order.

Citizenship was also granted as a reward for some extraordinary service to the state. In such cases, special ballots were carried out, and at least 6,000 votes in favor of the person in question were required.

Two main categories represented the elected officials. The first was those people who were needed to handle enormous sums of money. The second was a group of 10 generals, the strategoi, who were experienced and had widespread Greek contacts, which enabled them to handle the military and defense issues.

The elected officials were subject to investigation, both before and after holding office. This was in order to keep a check on the instances of corruption and misappropriation.

Another way of choosing candidates was selecting them by lot, which was a way of assigning responsibilities in a random manner. Though this seemed to be very close to democracy, it was a very crude way of selecting people for administration purposes, because not all who were chosen were competent to handle the task.

Ostracism was one of the procedures under which any citizen could be debarred from the society for a period of ten years. In literal terms ostrakismos (ostracism) meant ‘social rejection’. The term was derived from the Greek word ostrakon, which referred to potsherds.

Greek democracy is the best example of direct democracy that prevailed in the ancient world. It was literally the rule of the people, wherein all the elected representatives were directly answerable to the common masses. However, there were also numerous drawbacks of the system. A major disadvantage was the citizenship norms. Only men were granted citizenship, while women were not. This shows how degraded the status of women was. Also, slavery was prevalent on a large-scale, and slaves were not given citizenship. Moreover, there was a lot of discrimination among citizens and non-citizens. Also, there were less chances of active participation of the peasants living outside the city limits.


Plato and Aristotle criticized the speed of law-making that mattered at times of trouble. As there was no office of a strategist as such, all the important decisions had to be taken in the assembly itself. This was not always reasonable.

It was around 460 B.C. that General Pericles was elected and held office in Athens. He was such an influential aristocrat, that he came to be termed as the first citizen of Athens. It was under him that democracy evolved into some form of aristocracy, meaning the rule by one man who was the best among the lot. With the rise of aristocracy, democratic ideals ceased to exist. But although they could not survive in ancient Greece, they did succeed in making their mark, and have been influencing people and governments ever since.


Submitted by TRANSCEND member Satoshi Ashikaga.

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